(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)
Back in the 1950s the American Democrat Adlai Stevenson summed up the state of his Republican rivals thus: “a political party divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower, cannot produce national unity.”
That’s the problem for the Ulster Unionists, a political party which is half traditional and half liberal. The broad church concept is good in theory, but it cannot work in practice if the two halves (and, let’s not forget, there are further sub-divisions within each half) don’t have the same definition of heaven.
Over the past few weeks—and against the background of the ‘flag protests’—the two halves of the party have been waging war again, with yet another battle over rules, policy and internal control.
The Disciplinary Committee’s decision on Friday evening was a classic piece of UUP fudge making. In considering the charges of disloyalty and indiscipline levelled against Basil McCrea they had to keep three considerations in mind:
• Cover Nesbitt’s back. Anything less than a decisive victory for the leader would have fatally wounded a man who is already pretty weak.
• Ensure McCrea wouldn’t be allowed to present himself as a martyr. It’s been clear for some time that he wants to be hounded out of the party, so that he can claim that it is now a cold house for liberals and pluralists. Indeed, a senior party member told me that ‘Basil would happily provide the kindling and set fire to himself if he thought it would help his cause.’
• Provide just enough ‘punishment’ to allow the UUP’s three remaining Belfast councillors to stay in the party. They had threatened to defect unless McCrea was punished for what they viewed as his public attack on them. Nesbitt can’t afford to lose them, because it would leave the UUP with just two MLAs as their only elected representatives in Belfast.
The decision announced by the Committee ticked each of those boxes. They found him guilty as charged and then handed down the most lenient of the punishments available to them — a formal warning (their other choices were a fine, suspension, ‘not in good standing’ status or expulsion from the party).
They also passed the final decision to Nesbitt (which is, I suspect, a burden he didn’t want); because he, and only he, can now decide to restore the party whip to McCrea. Again, his options are limited:
1) He can keep McCrea at arm’s length and not rush to restore the whip. That leaves McCrea free to criticise a little longer and holds out the prospect of another disciplinary process further down the line.
2) He could restore the whip immediately (he doesn’t even need to talk to McCrea beforehand) but say that any repeat of the indiscipline or disloyalty would result in immediate expulsion. That would look generous, like the actions of a leader who was prepared to try and re-build bridges. But it would also force Basil to decide if he really would be comfortable on the inside again: and it would close the door to another grandstanding battle with the Disciplinary Committee on an issue of his choosing.
3) Or Nesbitt could try and cut a deal. Meet McCrea privately and offer to restore the whip, but demand a public guarantee from him that he will agree to be bound by ‘the collected rules, constitution and Standing Orders of the UUP’ (the same as every other party member). That’s a good option for Nesbitt: for it presents McCrea with a straight choice between emasculation and emancipation. Nesbitt is probably banking that McCrea wouldn’t accept the offer anyway and would choose to leave.
Of course, it is possible that McCrea will drag it out a while longer, with an appeal to the Party Officers (which he would almost certainly lose), followed by a trip to court. He believes that he has been wronged, found guilty on charges of which he is innocent. The trouble with that route is that the media, the public and even his own supporters will start getting bored.
To paraphrase the Groucho Marx maxim, ‘why continue to fight a party that doesn’t seem to want you and to which you don’t really want to belong anyway?
Here’s the nub of all of this: Nesbitt wants McCrea to go and McCrea wants to go — although McCrea would prefer to have gone as a martyr. There is going to be no meeting of minds between these two men because they want to take the party in entirely different directions. It is in the interests of both men, therefore (and of the UUP too), that there be a parting of the ways.
McCrea wants to start a new party: that much has been obvious for some time. It would begin as an Assembly grouping with him, John McCallister and David McClarty and would, or so he hopes, attract a handful of councillors. There are a couple of years until the next Assembly election, which gives them time to build a platform and profile. They could present themselves as the Opposition and concentrate on a handful of key issues.
They would get official recognition and speaking rights and (if memory of Assembly rules serves) funding. They would also be an attractive trio for media coverage, since all three are good, natural communicators (and much better than most of the UUP’s Assembly team).
They have a problem in that they could look like a refugee camp for disgruntled Ulster Unionists. But this could be offset if they managed to attract entirely new faces and voices to their side and persuaded one good candidate to stand in each constituency at the next Assembly election.
McCrea and McClarty have a good chance of re-election. McCallister has a more difficult task in South Down, but I wouldn’t discount his chances of sneaking home in the right circumstances.
Comparisons have been made with Faulkner’s Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. But this is an entirely different background. Mainstream unionism has accepted power-sharing and the UUP is no longer the colossus it was. Also, a very large section of the pro-Union electorate has opted out of politics and voting, presumably because they have no interest in voting DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, Conservative, Alliance et al.
There is clearly a gap in the market. Whether a new soft-u, pro-Union vehicle (concentrating on an issues agenda rather than symbols and headcounts) could attract a significant tranche of that market is open to question, but it’s certainly worth a go.
So, what does the UUP do in those circumstances? Well, it would do exactly what Nesbitt (and a tightly knit band of cronies) have been planning to do since he became leader almost a year ago—conclude an electoral pact with the DUP.
When Nesbitt said he had ‘no big idea and no quick fixes’ (a mantra he repeated again a couple of weeks ago) he wasn’t entirely truthful. His big idea is to cut a deal with the DUP to save the UUP from electoral extinction. As a member of the Erne Group back in 2011 (a ‘private’ group established by then leader Tom Elliott) he was well aware that David McNarry and others were talking to the DUP.
He was equally well aware that those talks included discussions about electoral arrangements beneficial to both parties. On taking the leadership he surrounded himself with people who liked the idea of a much cosier relationship with the DUP and a new outreach to the Orange and Ulster-Scots communities.
When Nesbitt said that “we have to shrink to grow” he actually meant getting rid of liberals (having bought into the view that it was a waste of time trying to reach out and attract the so-called pluralists and moderates) as well as getting rid of known troublemakers. He happily sacrificed McNarry: partly to make himself look tough, but also because McNarry was an unguided missile.
He let Ken Maginnis go (his comments on the Nolan show provided the exit strategy); because he knew that he would not support the idea of moving too close to the DUP. He wants rid of McCrea and McCallister for the same reasons. Put bluntly, Nesbitt doesn’t want anyone in the party who causes him problems with the media or who is prepared to challenge his push towards the DUP.
It’s a cold, hard, utterly ruthless gameplan, but maybe it’s the right plan in the circumstances. The recent BBC/Spotlight poll put the UUP at 13.2%, exactly the same level of support they had at the 2011 Assembly election—their worst ever result. Nesbitt’s disapproval ratings, with UUP supporters and the wider unionist community, were uncomfortably high for a man who should still have been enjoying a honeymoon period. In other words, the UUP is still flat-lining.
In the 2009 Euro election Jim Allister failed to hold his seat on 13.7% of the vote. The next Euro election is in June 2014 and both the Conservatives and UKIP will be fielding candidates—who are more likely to damage the UUP than the DUP. Last year there were hints that the DUP was toying with the idea of putting up two candidates. That scared the UUP.
They rely on their MEP’s office costs to provide some staff and rent. The loss of their MEP, having already lost all their MPs, would be crippling for them. If that loss came a year before Assembly and council elections it would, almost certainly, have a devastating knock-on effect.
The UUP also has a problem with their Assembly team. Only three came in on the first count in 2011 (Tom Elliott, Danny Kennedy and Basil McCrea). If McCrea goes—and I think he will, taking McCallister with him—then the party starts with only 13 MLAs, 8 of whom came in on the last or second last count. The slightest slippage could easily rob them of another four or five MLAs.
A deal with the DUP makes sense, for it would give the UUP much needed transfers at both Assembly and council elections. A deal would also help at the Euro election, ensuring that the DUP didn’t field a second candidate and guaranteeing a considerable bulk of transfers from Diane Dodds.
A deal would also be beneficial—again, to both parties—at Westminster. Neither South Belfast nor North Down can be won back if the DUP and UUP oppose each other. North Belfast could be a problem for Nigel Dodds if he also has to see off a UUP candidate. East Belfast may look easier to win back now that the boundaries aren’t going to change, but the incumbent always has an advantage. So if the UUP and DUP could come to some ‘arrangement’ there are obvious advantages for them—including giving the UUP a clear run in at least two constituencies.
Something else they may be considering is fielding what would be, to all intents and purposes, joint candidates at the next Assembly election. Say, for example, they branded themselves as the United Democratic and Ulster Unionist Parties and, between them, won between 50 and 53 seats, that would guarantee the First Minister’s job and also increase their early pick of ministerial posts when d’Hondt is triggered.
Last October John McCallister was removed as deputy leader of the UUP Assembly Group because he had warned of the danger of the party being seen to ‘sleep walk’ into unionist unity. Yet since that demotion the UUP and DUP have cooperated on joint letters, leaflets, statements, initiatives, a Unionist Forum and negotiations about an agreed candidate in Mid-Ulster.
One of Nesbitt’s Party Officers told me that ‘cooperation and nailed-down pacts with the DUP may be the only way of saving the UUP at this point. Mike has lost all credibility with the middle ground of unionism and there are no votes coming from there anytime soon.’
Realignment is taking place across and within the entire pro-Union constituency (as well as more broadly than that). The Conservatives and UKIP are organising and recruiting—although I’m not anticipating anything resembling a breakthrough from either. It seems very likely that there will be a new vehicle involving McCrea and Co.
There are rumblings of activity from new groups like the NI Progress Party and Vote NI. The Alliance Party will lose some of its ‘unionist’ base as a consequence of having been seen to support Sinn Fein on reducing the number of days the Union Flag flies (although it would argue that it simply voted for its existing policy).
In other words there is going to be a greater scrabbling for votes within the pro-Union constituency and that will put the UUP, in particular, under enormous pressure. Nesbitt has only one job now: it’s not about expanding the UUP into new areas and taking on the DUP, it’s actually about ensuring the survival of the UUP. Nesbitt, along with those closest to him, have decided that survival depends on much closer cooperation with the DUP. So the departure of people like McCrea and McCallister is a bonus from his perspective.
After almost a year as UUP leader Nesbitt has nothing to show in terms of progress or success. Key figures have left the party. Former supporters are briefing against him. His personal relationship with the media is appalling and he seems incapable of wooing them or winning them over. Opinion poll evidence indicates no bounce for the party. His performances on radio and television have been very poor for a man with a background in radio and television. Key figures in other parties (and across civic society) are openly critical of him.
He is helped by the fact that nobody else wants the job: that said he will not survive a bad Euro election next June—indeed he may not survive anyway, such is the level of disappointment in him at grassroots level. He needs a deal with the DUP. He needs it for the photo-opportunities with Peter Robinson and the prospect of DUP transfers to shore up UUP support at elections. He needs it to ensure the success of their candidate at the Euro election.
He needs it to boost the chances of winning a Westminster seat if the DUP agree to a free run. He needs a DUP deal because there is no other viable route or strategy by which the UUP will survive as a credible political/electoral force. That deal with the DUP is his big idea and quick fix. The DUP know it too: they also know that they have the UUP and its leader exactly where they want them.
(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)
Alex- is quite a writer and loves to tell a story – but is very wrong about Nesbitt. Mike Nesbitt has definitely shown progress and leadership, something no other Unionist leader has shown since Trimble. He has been in charge of bringing different types of Unionism together and raised his profile and the UUP big style- No matter what the BBC Polls show.
Faceless statements by a Nesbitt-Loyal who ignore popular opinion is hardly a positive for Mike or the Party. Support the Leader and the Party if you must but at least do it in a method that presents a rationale or persuades by power of expression that Mike Nesbitt is correct or that the UUP deserve our trust.
I am as faceless as everyone else! It doesn’t make me wrong though! But good that you took the time to post. Pointless as it was.
We could debate the multi-facades that used to be the UUP for ever.
The reality is that once the Orange Order where denied places ‘as a right’ on the Council that the Party lost a steady, sustainable vote foundation that has never been replaced. The majority of the ‘orange’ card in the UUP went DUP.
We could debate, for ever, why the Orange Order maintained such an influence on a political party but the removal took away that ‘official’ (as in endorsed) to the ‘Official Ulster Unionist Party’.. ‘official unionism’ died. The Party has been seeking sustainable votes since that largely leave the Party reliant on it’s class membership from the land owner, farmer and business community, who, historically have never wholly funded the Party and certainly never supplied the canvass fodder or volume vote.
Mike inherited a basket case, of that, no one be under any doubt however I know from personal experience that he is dismissive (if not downright ignoring) of support from those that hold the institution that is the Ulster Unionist Council & it’s evolution, dear. Mike’s ego or indifference to true support whether it be individuals, the media or beyond has been shabby.
In the short term electoral mandates are essential for Unionism. In the long term the UUP needs to accept that ‘official’ is gone & become the true broad base of moderate Unionism it was constituted to be. It must let those that are not of that ilk, go, regrouping to original constitutional values then growing foundation up within the letter (not the spirit) of the GFA.
Very interesting analysis. If it all were to come true, it could almost be in danger of sounding like a hark-back to the 1970s Sunningdale era, Vanguard, UUUC, UPNI. From what I can conclude (and correct me if I’m wrong) it sounds very much (eventually) like a merger between the DUP & UUP, with the DUP (obviously) being the main benefactor. Such a party (whatever it would be called) would almost certainly be the lead voice of Unionism, and would probably attract some extra support to begin with from certain shallow unionists who think that this faux “unity” is the answer to all Unionism’s problems. These same types would probably turn on TUV, PUP, UKIP & Basil’s new party for not falling into line and denounce them as “vote splitters” and forget that such “unity” pacts will only make IRA/Sinn Fein stronger. Remember what happened in Fermanagh & South Tyrone in 2010 general election ? All of course until it all goes tits up with the usual personality clashes which have personified Unionism over the years, failure to deliver at Stormont & more concessions to IRA/Sinn Fein, and the ire of the voters will once again be showed by another decline in turnout at elections. Which brings us back to square one !
And where does normal politics go in the middle of this shotgun wedding ? Those of us who want to see national politics based on left/right issues taking centre stage here. What about opposition in the assembly ? Is that something that is just never going to happen ? Even if Basil’s party win 4 or 5 seats and Jim Allister retains his, will they be enough to hold the DUP/UUP, SDLP, IRA/Sinn Fein, Alliance power grabbers to account ?
All in all I wouldn’t hold out any prospect of any meaningful progress being made here while sectarian politics is reinforced through such a scenario, and the so called shared future would be discarded to the rubbish tip. The only real winners in this would be the DUP & IRA/Sinn Fein and the poor old UUP with its proud history would eventually be no more.
I read the comments by Alex with much consternation – not because I disagree but rather I fear that he may be right. I consider that Mike Nesbitt and myself are on friendly terms – I like him and wish him well. Sometimes it takes a friend who is detached from the issue to give impartial advice “Do not do it Mike – I think you are being duped by forces you will not be able to control in the future”. I appreciate that you have to do something to build the UUP back to something of its former electoral glory Becoming the poodle of the DUP – and lets face it they will have the larger numbers and it will be their way or no way in the end. Anyone who thinks the DUP are going to aid the UUP out of the goodness of their hearts is fooling themselves – worse, deluding themselves. The DUP are in this for the DUP – period!
You need numbers Mike; you need live bodies on the ground and bums on the seats. There is an apettite in the country for pure bread and butter issues. People are fed up with the flags protest – indeed embarassed by it. The recent Spotlight poll has indicated that the British identity which some Unionists think is under threat has never been safer. The threat to it is an internal one coming from within Unionism itself. Your joint forum with Peter Robinson is doomed and you will be tarnished with its failure – and it is not doomed not because of anything that Nationalists will bring to it for they have not even been invited. No it is doomed because of internal Uniionist refusal to attend it. Therefore your bogey man is not Nationalism / Republicanism – no votes there Mike. But I suspect your achilles heel is internal Unionist apathy. The people who would vote for you are not really interested in flags, yahboo politics, non existent cultural erosion (is there really any significant part of your culture that you cannot do today that you could have done 10 years ago – in truth significant and not tinkering here and there)? Are you any less British today in real terms? In truth the answer is no. Yes you might feel a little annoyed at some aspects but in the bigger picture can you really stand up and say you are less British than say someone in Bradford or Birmingham?
One time you offered to stay with a family for a few days to see how they were coping Mike – I applauded you for at least trying. And there is a bigger project for you now – to drive around the country and discover the real problems facing the people. The Lisburn road would be a good starting point – rows of shops closed down; jobs lost. When you are there call in at the City Hospital Accident and Emergency – it is no longer there Mike. Ask to see the hospital waiting lists; call at the headquarters of the Housing Executive and ask how many of our people are waiting on homes to bring up their families. When you are driving Mike look at the state of the roads – potholes everywhere. Call at the benefits offices and job centres and look at the number of people who want to work – yes who want to go out to work but cannot get a job. They will work at anything just to get a wage. Please call at the banks and on behalf of the country demand an explanation for their actions in bringing the country to its knees and inflicting so much misery upon your fellow citizens. The list goes on and on Mike – from crime to agriculture; school closures, shortages of public services,terrible public transport, the cost of petrol, home heating oil, food in the shops. These are the things that people are really interested in – unless you think that the first thing that is on peoples minds when they wake up every morning is the constitutional question and I know that you do not believe that for one minute.
The reason why people will not vote is that they are interested in all of the above daily issues that affect their lives and while you may claim that you do talk about these things I am afraid it is not coming accross that way. Forums, splits and mergers is all we can hear, see and read about. The huge number who gave up on voting justifiably will not go to the bother of going to the polling station to vote for more of the same. Einstein once remarked that the defintion of insanity was to ‘repeat the same experiment but to expect a different result’. What you are offering Mike is more of the same and hoping for a different result.
And it is not too late. You could turn it round – and very quickly. Go on the offensive and unashamedly champion the cause of the closed down businesses, the A&E departments, the waiting lists, the roads, the banks – the things that really matter to people. You may get quite a shock when you discover that people will rally behind you in the common cause. The different factions in your own party my even discover that they too have these same common causes in their own areas. When people are are busy on real things they have no time to squabble about mundane and meaningless red herrings.
You have a chance,Mike, to create clear blue water between you and the DUP The DUP will have their own policies and democratically they will try to persuade people to vote for them and not you. But you Mike, you have a golden opportunity to entice a huge swathe of lapsed voters; to restore confidence in the political process; to empower those who have lost hope; to concentrate minds on the important matters of everyday living (and get it heard, seen and read); to hold the banks to account; to create policies that really matter to people when they wake up in the morning (or maybe did not sleep due to worry of the lack of policy and help). and in years to come be able to look back and say “I done that; I served my fellow citizens and I made a difference – it was a tough choice but I took it and it paid off – I done that”
Alex Kane makes an interesting argument. But does it make sense for the UUP to ally with DUP and for a new splinter group led by Basil, John, and David to emerge? The history of new parties suggests its very difficult. Wouldn’t it be better for Basil, John, and David to stay in the tent and fight on. Remember the Gang of Four who split from Labour to form the SDP. It would have been better for them to stay in Labour and hasten the ultimate reform of the party that was to happen a decade later. Equally, shouldn’t Basil John and David stay with the UUP – make the case internally for opposition and civic unionism -and wait for their moment to come? The moment could come if things go badly for Nesbitt’s strategy. If things go well for Nesbitt’s strategy then it would be a sign that it was not such a bad idea after all.
I have to admit, disillusioned with the DUP who proved themselves to be more of the same, I had high hopes for Nesbitt. Coming in from a different angle, not known to be a leading light in the Orange Order, or a religion sycophant, a personality who had charm and charisma, I thought he could be a revelation for the UUP, throwing off the staid ways that ruined the party and instead bring it up to date in the brave new world of post GFA Stormont.
Wrong. His ego makes him look elitist and detached. The UUP has not changed direction, there is no policy announcements to make people sit up and take notice. There is no leadership outside of a few spats that have resulted in people leaving. The UUP is nowhere to be found when it comes to the flags issue. Their only real involvement came when Robinson realised HE has a problem and has to tackle it head on with talking shops and repeated backing for people’s right to protest. Outside of that, the UUP look like DUP’s backroom staff.
There are easy wins all over NI if Nesbitt went looking. Connect with the working classes. Delve into bread and butter issues. Bring disillusioned catholics in. Be the party for everyone in Northern Ireland.
What we don’t need or want is DUP Light. We want a unionist party that is devoid of the fire and brimstone politics of the past. I fear that through sheer arrogance alone, Nesbitt has missed that boat. The market is wide open and ready for a new unionist party which is bizarre, considering the number we already have in a population of roughly 2 million, many of whom don’t even vote unionist….
That is why there is a strong argument to say that McCallister, McCrea et al should stay in the UUP and make these arguments; eventually this is the realignment that is obvious — the UUP becomes the civic unionist alternative that is able to be distinct from the DUP and uncontimanated (by association) by it.
I agree, better to force the argument from inside rather that stand outside and look like a rabble-rouser. The problem is the party leader has to be disposed and that appears to be the trouble.
When you compare the dtfference between UUP and DUP at election time one thing that stands out is the ability to put electioneers on the street. The DUP has a very slick electoral machine. The UUP doesn’t. This I feel is the problem that Basil McCrea and his mates will experience should they launch a new party.
They will probably get adherents who will be happy discussing the ills of the country, and how it can be resolved, at supper clubs, coffee mornings etc. However, will they get their hands dirty with the practical side of politics. That I think will be the problem.
@John – you are absolutely spot on.
An awful lot of people are happy to discuss the nation’s ills over lunch or, dare I say, online. Some are even clever enough to get themselves a media profile.
How many were out knocking doors in the rain? DUP and Alliance, that’s who.